Director Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Released on 30th October 2016
There are times in Gary Ross’s Free State Of Jones that you expect all Matthew McConaughey’s followers to declare, one by one, “I’m McConaugheus!” There’s another title for the film that one of my fellow critics suggested, but I won’t pinch it. It’s to do with Robin Hood ……
The story’s inspired by true events during the American Civil War, starting in 1862, when disenchanted Confederate army officer Newton Knight (McConaughey) deserts his post, returns home and leads a revolt against the army taking 10% of everything the local farmers grow and own. It’s intended to feed and clothe the army, but they keep on taking. And taking. The rebellion results in the declaration of Jones County becoming the free state of the title, despite being placed under martial law after the end of the war and the many other obstacles placed in the way of its citizens.
The narrative is spread over more than a decade and, in truth, it feels like it. It’s actually a film of two very distinct halves and gives the impression that director/writer Gary Ross was so fascinated by this small but significant piece of history that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. There’s no doubting it’s a sincere piece of film making, but there’s essentially two films here. The first half, which covers the rebellion against the army, would have made the more powerful one: it’s more dramatic and has a stronger structure. Instead, we’re confronted by a film that lasts 2 hours 15 minutes and, frankly, it drags, especially in the second part. And that shift in emphasis from the rebellious to the political dilutes the film’s messages and that, combined with its excessive length, robs the film of some of its power.
It’s hampered even further by a third, smaller section, which is the main reason why the film is an over-long slog. There’s a series of flash forwards to the same location but in the 1950s and, while they’re connected to the main narrative, I won’t say how. That would be as big a spoiler as the scenes themselves. What would have made an interesting footnote, or even an extra for the DVD release, turns out to be superfluous and more than a little irritating.
On the plus side, the film has some excellent photography, especially during the scenes in the swamp where Knight hides out with some escaped slaves. The opening scenes don’t pull any punches when it comes to the brutality of warfare and the atmospheric score from Nicholas Britell has more than a hint of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis about it. In fact, one of the tracks was contributed by them. It almost goes without saying that McConaughey is superb in the role: intense, charismatic but human in true Spartacus style and barely containing his rage at the inhumanity of what he sees. Just watch the moment when he discovers the body of his brutally murdered friend. It’s also good to see British actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw making an impact in Hollywood in a nicely drawn portrait of a former slave.
It is, without doubt, a film with sincere intentions, one that follows in the footsteps of 12 Years A Slave. But it’s very much in the shadow of the multi-Oscar winner, because it struggles under the weight of too much narrative. The result isn’t just far too long, it’s downright tiring. For all the wrong reasons.
Free State Of Jones is released in cinemas on Friday, 30 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 29 September.